Friday, June 28, 2013

Richard Matheson

Any of you who were around to watch the original Twilight Zone  on its first broadcasts, or ever cracked a book of fantasy and horror fiction, likely grew up with Richard Matheson somewhere in the background.

The prolific genre writer, who died this week at 87, is best known for his novel I Am Legend, made three times into movies, with, at best, modest success. (The best is the 1971 version, The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, though you’ll smirk at the scenes where the mutant vampires dance about like Woodstock hippies. Pretty corny, even then.)

Matheson wrote hundreds of other novels, short stories, and film and television scripts. I recall Stephen King writing somewhere (probably in his indispensable horror survey, Danse Macabre) that it was Matheson who set traditional horror fiction free from the prison of ancient haunted houses into twentieth-century sunlit suburbs, with the monster crawling out of the sugar bowl sitting in the middle of the kitchen table.

He was one of many major fantasy-horror writers of that era, chief among them Ray Bradbury. He was a proud member of the clique who wrote many of Twilight Zone’s best episodes, which included creator Rod Serling, George Clayton Johnson, and Charles Beaumont. Along with the latter two, Matheson’s work set the tone for horror fiction at the time, more than anyone else, except for Bradbury.

In addition to penning some of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, he was a major influence on Steven Spielberg, not only for writing the director’s first movie, Duel, but also on his other fantasy films, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Poltergeist. All three are set in the suburban world that Matheson often wrote about and Spielberg grew up in.

My favorite Twilight Zone episode remains Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. I remember scurrying from the room where I was watching it, all alone, one weekend night, in a house in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. It’s still pretty scary.

(Here, I will cheerfully stoke the wrath of the Internet by saying that’s a nice bit of acting there by William Shatner.)

George Miller’s steroidal remake for The Twilight Zone: The Movie, upped the special effects and hysteria level, but wasn’t as creepy or scary. Lithgow is a superior actor to Shatner, but the choice to play the character as sweaty shivering loony from the first shot seems a mistake. The drama was not allowed to build and so remained at the same level and so the segment went by in a flat buzz. The face at the window in the original, costumy though it may be, is still more memorable for its avid grotesquerie.

My favorite of Matheson’s novels was The Shrinking Man, which I found in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, paperback store just after I saw the film on late-night TV. It remains a swell metaphor for the rise of middle-class America and the shrinking of the individual. But mostly I like it because any work featuring a giant spider scrabbling after a guy in a dark cellar always marches down my spine, as well. (The 1957 film version is still good but seems primitive now and would be worth a quality remake, certainly in this era of the shrinking middle class. Anyone know an independent producer? My word processor’s all fired up!)

My favorite of his hundreds of short stories is Long Distance Call, a terrific mood piece about a lonely old lady on a violent stormy night and the empty silence at the other end of the phone. It ends with one of the best closing lines ever.

Matheson’s skill with narrative and atmosphere delighted me more than his metaphysics. For me, his most valuable contribution, one that remains modern horror fiction’s most telling contribution, is that the faith that our world is always progressing toward safety and sanity is an illusion, no matter how many lights we turn on at night, no matter how bright the sun, blue the sky, or well trimmed the front lawn. The world under our feet is always trembling; the air around us is only a fragile shell that can crack open at any second.

And then comes . . . .

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Monday, June 24, 2013

They Have Faces Now: James Gandolfini and the New Character Actors

The sudden, saddening death of Sopranos  star James Gandolfini has inspired rolling waves of tributes from all over. Many have been deep-dish pieces on the place of Tony Soprano and the show in art and pop culture, the larger society, and the secret compartments of ourselves (mostly the ones in the basement, toward the rear, where the wolves and lizards live, that only God really knows about).

For those of us for whom movies are a pleasure beyond analysis, and whose viewing devices may be locked on to Turner Classic Movies, the 1999 debut of The Sopranos and the rise of James Gandolfini and his equally homely fellow goombahs, family, and friends, represented something else—the happy resurrection of a film tradition that seemed to be rapidly fading into irrelevance, sliding toward extinction.

The tradition of the character actor.


If you regularly watch any movie or TV show made before 1980—or even earlier—you know whom I’m talking about: those faces in the background, the men and women standing around or behind the handsome sturdy star.

They were snaggle-toothed sidekicks, wise aunts, wisecracking best girlfriends, gold-heart hookers, poncy servants, bumbling uncles, fussy bankers, drunken doctors, or, often best of all, the Bad Guys and their grizzled, snaky armies of thugs and murderers.

If you’re like me, you probably have a few favorites. Off the top of my head leap Frank Morgan, Una O’Connor, Edward Everett Horton, Harry Davenport, Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Elisha Cook, Whit Bissell (I’ll explain someday), and Lee Van Cleef. There are many more; you likely have your own list.

They very rarely ever became stars, or stars in major A pictures (though Humphrey Bogart did), though they won supporting actor awards. Some, like Edward G. Robinson, actually started out as major stars, but as they aged, they accumulated greater texture—wrinkles and gray hairs, a gleam of experience in the eyes—that mark the best character actors. Their sex appeal dwindled, but another spirit, often a better one, twinkled to life in that empty space.

Each actor played within a narrow range of strongly identifiable types. They were rarely versatile chameleons in the manner of say, Robert de Niro or so impossibly dominating, you couldn’t imagine (or want) them in the background of anything, such as John Wayne.

Ordinary looking—even homely--they were often less than the stars, more like the man and woman on the street, or down the road; meaning, like you and me, lumpen proles. Sometimes, they acted as witnesses, providing a bridge between the movie and the audience. They were stand-ins for us. They made for comic relief and charming, homey familiarity, a family of sorts.

They were also, too often, the only things worthwhile about otherwise bad, boring movies. (This is notable, to me at least, in villainous Lee Van Cleef’s appearances, where my interest in the movie often slumps once he takes the Big Bullet and the danger to the hero dies with him.)


The heyday of the character actor started when the movies began and lasted until the big studios did their slow dissolve in the late 1960s. These studios, Warner Brothers, MGM, Twentieth-Century Fox, and others, employed large stables of them and kept them busy year around, often for decades; for example, MGM’s Frank Morgan was kept so busy (playing among other things, The Wizard of Oz), he even earned his own large fan base. Character actors didn’t get rich in Hollywood, but if they found a niche, they could make a living.

But with the studios gone, those faces, those personalities, lost their means of support and began to disappear. The old ones faded away and no one rose in their place—the old factories to employ them were no longer there.

Many, like Lee Van Cleef, became “gypsy actors” overseas, often hustling for whatever scraps they could find to support their families. (This relates, I suspect, to the general hollowing out of Hollywood movies over the last four decades; that feeling they give of being rolled down a steep, rocky hill inside a loud and empty drum.)

The faces in the background became blander and scripts started making less room for that rich palette (and the movies became dull, too). If they appeared at all, it was mostly in the films of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, two true believers in the canonical history of the movies.


Then I saw David Chase’s The Sopranos. In addition to my joy at its skill, imagination, and artistry, my thoughts flashed on the 1930s Warner Brothers genre movies, especially the musicals and gangster pictures. Behind Tony Soprano, Christopher, Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussy, Silvio, and many others, mugs and molls both, lurked those doughy ugly faces of the past like great ancient ghosts: not only Robinson, Cagney, and Bogie, but Aline McMahon, Ned Sparks, Hugh Herbert, and many others.

And one of the best and the most exciting things about The Sopranos was that these “supporting actors” and their characters were no longer pushed to the edge of the screen to lug the hero’s water—they were now front and center. Character and actor got their moment in the lights, often many moments. Thanks to the expansive format of the long-form series, they were given the time and space to shine in ways they rarely could before, even in the best Golden Age movies.

They were, collectively, the Stars.

My favorite Sopranos  moments? The beatific shine from Tony Soprano’s face as the ducks fly away from his backyard pond, an unhappy thug seeing beauty for the first time in his life; the “Pine Barrens” antics of Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) bumbling around the freezing New Jersey backwoods like a psychopathic Laurel and Hardy; not even Walter Brennan had that much fun.

Since then, cable TV series have brought us a new era that can be rightly called “golden.” And it includes some broad galleries of faces and performers.

For another example, you could have set the best supporting actors from any western made from the 1930s to the 1960s in David Milch’s Deadwood and have a great show (one that John Ford, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and Sam Peckinpah all might have been proud to helm, cussin’ and all).

We didn’t get those guys, but what we got was also perfect: a tremendous and tortured villain in Ian McShane; fine complicated heroes in Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes; pungent portraits of frontier shit-birds and gnarly prospectors, as played by William Sanderson and Jim Beaver; and foul-mouthed female gunslingers and tough-minded hookers, as played by Robin Weigert and Kim Dickens. They gave life to every word and gesture. As actors, they’d roped in the roles of their lives and rode them for all they’re worth.

Time forbids elaboration here, but take a look at everything from Veep to Breaking Bad to Justified (also featuring Olyphant and the estimable Mr. Beaver). Note how almost no one in these shows looks like what we nowadays consider a movie star.

(It’s possible that cable TV series can’t afford to not hire actors with both skill and genuine personality. An amiable fellow like Sam Worthington (Avatar), would be steamrolled by most of the cast of Game of Thrones, a show where even little people stand way taller than they used to. Errol Flynn would have to work even harder now (and take much better care of himself, bless his raffish soul).

James Gandolfini and The Sopranos  opened the gates to this new, but familiar, world of film. They resurrected an old style of film acting that seemed lost, and broadened and deepened the craft. With the dramatic space provide by the form, clich├ęs and reflective tics will no longer do. They have to echo something deeper.

With Gandolfini leading the way, the experience of watching narrative film, long or short, is now richer, more exciting, more pleasurable than ever. Watching these shows makes me feel like a child again, in the company of a family of a familiar faces.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.